How can I add cottage style to my garden ?

Deep red hollyhock and bright poppies in a generously planted Dutch cottage garden - (Photo by Benjamin Rossen - CC-BY)

Deep red hollyhock and bright poppies in a generously planted Dutch cottage garden - (Photo by Benjamin Rossen - CC-BY)

Creating your own cottage garden is about building up an overall effect, not about following hard and fast rules. Aim for a nostalgic, informal look, with plenty of old-fashioned flowers – sweet-scented if possible. This style can suit not-too-hot parts of North America and Europe as well as anywhere in the UK.

A traditional cottage look gets a good start with roses or honeysuckle framing the door and trailing over walls or fences. Remember the difference between climbing roses that reach the top of the door or a little beyond (read the label) and rambling roses. Vigorous ramblers may scramble up onto the roof of a two-storey cottage. Winter jasmine is a good climber on shady walls.

The right roses will look good in the garden, but avoid a formal rose-bed effect with lots of hybrid teas on stiff stems.  Shrub roses with arching branches and soft colours give a romantic look. If they are fragrant and have red rose-hips in autumn so much the better.

Ideally, the path to the front door would be old stone or weathered brick, but if yours is concrete, soften it with plants that overhang the edges – a little. Lavender looks and smells good, and doesn’t disappear in winter. Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) is an easy plant that works well at the side of a path, and its light green flowers mean it sits comfortably alongside brighter colours.

After deciding on wall and doorway planting you need to plan ahead a little. Poor 19th century cottagers got cuttings and seeds from neighbours and had little time for detailed design, but you will enjoy your garden more if you think about where your tallest plants will go, where to place evergreens, and how to balance different colours and heights.

Find space for traditional cottage flowers like hollyhocks, Canterbury bells, foxgloves, sweet peas, and Michaelmas daisies, as well as  lower-growing primroses, pinks, wallflowers, and stocks. Snowdrops, daffodils, and English bluebells are all spring bulbs that earlier cottagers might have found in the northern European countryside. Lilies of the valley are lovely, but poisonous. Avoid plants described as “architectural”. This often means exotic plants with stiff leaves – the opposite of the cottage garden look.

Do you want a potato patch at the side or back of the house, like a Victorian cottage gardener? Even if you choose not to grow basic vegetables, you could have fruit bushes. Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants used to be old-fashioned British cottage garden staples. Runner beans climbing up canes have very decorative red flowers, while herbs scent the garden as well as the home. Try “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”, as the folksong says, and be sure to grow lavender for indoor and outdoor fragrance.

Well-chosen garden furniture and rustic “ornaments” will add to the effect you’re creating. Simple wooden seats and plant-tubs made from old barrels always look good. You can also plant herbs and flowers in old stone troughs, or buy vintage gardening tools and zinc watering-cans. If you have an old metal bucket, use it for growing mint – a good herb, but one that may try to take over the whole garden if not kept in a container.

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